Illinois Public Media News
Champaign and Urbana are vying for federal grant money to build a network of broadband computer service in underserved areas. But that could entice the cities to look into broadening the service even further.
Urbana city council members have held holding a study session on the subject. Mayor Laurel Prussing says the grant - if the cities win it - could be an opportunity to offer internet, TV and phone service at a competitive rate to nearly all residents.
"What I'd like to see, instead of having something that's going to be taking money from the cities over the future, I'd like to see it set up as a utility so that the cities can provide service to the public, and get revenue so we wouldn't have to rely so much on taxes," Prussing said.
The so-called big broadband project is already working to extend coverage to key community facilities like libraries, along with parts of the cities that may not be covered by private fiber-optic projects. Prussing says the council still needs to decide whether to pursue the federal grant, how much it would want to spend and how to develop a business plan for broadband service.
Legal video gambling at Illinois taverns is expected to be in place next year, providing tax revenue for state capital projects and local governments. But some local governments have voted to opt out of video gaming. A Champaign County Board committee will consider such a proposal this fall.
The county board's Policy Committee will hold a full discussion on video gaming in November. But committee members heard both sides of the debate over the social impact of video gambling last night. Tom Fiedler of Melody Music in Champaign is president of the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, and he says research has shown legal video gaming adds little to a state's gambling addiction problem, thanks in part to strict limits on how many machines a bar can host. "It's a very low impact situation," said Fiedler. "It's not a destination type of thing. It's five machines. It's more for the casual player; it's a form of adult entertainment."
But University of Illinois Business Administration Professor John Kindt --- who's studied the economic impact of legalized gambling --- compares video gaming to crack cocaine when it comes to gambling addiction.
"When these come into a person's backyard, you're in fact doubling the number of addicted gamblers," said Kindt. "And among young people -- students in particular -- it's even worse. It goes up 200, 300, 400 percent."
The impact on students will mean more to the cities of Urbana and especially Champaign, where many bars specialize in serving students. But each city and village can make its own decision on whether to opt out of legal video gaming. Policy Committee Chairman Tom Betz wants local governments to act together on the issue, to avoid creating a patchwork of gambling and no-gambling areas in the county.
University of Illinois negotiators and members of the union that represents graduate student employees held another bargaining session Wednesday.
Graduate Employees Organization members aren't happy with the direction talks are going -- they protested outside the Levis Faculty Center, where negotiations continued with the help of a federal mediator. The grad students' previous contract expired last month.
Carrie Pimblott is the GEO's lead negotiator. She calls the university's proposal for no raises over three years unacceptable - in fact, she claims most union requests are being rejected.
"They came back and said all of the proposals we had suggested that were monetary were untenable because they didn't have the money to do it. And a lot of our non-monetary issues they rejected for various reasons," Pimblott said. "Essentially they came back with a lot of very egregious proposals that not only rejected our central values but suggested that they would want to erode our grievance rights, erode our rights as union workers."
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says they won't comment on negotiations while they're in progress.
Pimblott says the GEO wants to put pressure on the university through rallies - she says a labor action is not out of the question.
Illinois consumers will pay more for toiletries, candy, soft drinks and liquor starting Tuesday as lawmakers raise cash to pay for a statewide construction program.
Most candy _ currently carrying a 1 percent sales tax _ will be taxed at 6.25 percent. And it'll be the same for shampoos and toothpastes that until now were considered "medicated.''
Bottled soft drinks with added sweetener or flavoring, such as iced tea, will be taxed more. And liquor distributors will pay more for alcohol. In many cases, the cost will be passed on to consumers.
All told, the changes should raise about $150 million a year toward a $30 billion roads-and-schools building plan. The program also includes hundreds of millions of dollars for local pet projects of lawmakers.
The state of Illinois has another lodging facility on its hands, and it's trying to find a buyer.
The state already owns one hotel in which it had invested money, and last year it unloaded a second. The latest possession is a property on state park land. The firm that held the concession for the Eagle Creek Resort and Conference Center near Shelbyville had fallen into receivership, and last month the receiver asked that it be closed. Today the state began asking for bids to revive the sprawling resort.
Tom Flattery is a planner with the state Department of Natural Resources. He says the closure has come at a bad time for the resort industry, so finding an operator may be tough.
Flattery says the Eagle Creek Resort had deteriorated over time, so he estimates that it could take 1.5 million dollars to restore it. In the meantime, the DNR is keeping the resort mothballed, spending about 50 thousand dollars a year to provide security and maintain the 18-hole golf course.
Bids for running the resort are due by mid-November.
In central Illinois, many employers large and small have downsized or closed altogether, forcing thousands of laid-off workers to consider new options. In our latest report as part of our outreach project "WILL Connect: The Economy", AM 580's Jeff Bossert looks at the retraining of workers. Ingenuity and government-funded training are giving many of them a jump on a new career, or a better shot at an old one:
Organizations that help the poor in east-central Illinois are giving out more and more assistance. But there may be many people who for some reason or another have not made that call for help. In the latest of our series of stories in connection with the outreach project "WILL Connect: The Economy," AM 580's Tom Rogers introduces us to people who decided to make the leap and reach out for aid, and people who encourage others to do so.
The union representing a majority of Illinois state workers wants a judge to halt plans for government layoffs. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has filed suit in Johnson County, home of the Vienna Correctional Center.
It's in response to Governor Pat Quinn's plan to cut as many as 26-hundred jobs across state government, some as early as next month. Quinn says the plan would provide savings for the cash-strapped state. But AFSCME Spokesman Anders Lindall says the layoffs could create other problems...
"We need to know how will the work be done in whatever agency we're talking about," Lindall said. "Will this significantly increase caseloads in the Department of Human Services? Will it cause further shortages in state prisons that drive up overtime costs and make conditions less safe?"
AFSCME's lawsuit argues the state should be prohibited from going through with layoffs until it finishes bargaining with the union over the impact of job cuts. No hearing date has been set. Quinn's office did not respond to calls seeking comment.
With the economy shaky and unemployment up, more people are turning to food pantries for help in getting enough to eat. In east-central Illinois, food pantries -- and the regional food bank that supplies them -- say more people are coming to them for help, some of them for the first time. AM 580's Jim Meadows reports.
A coordinator of a tent community for the homeless wants to turn the project into a full-fledged not-for-profit organization.
In the meantime, Abby Harmon is asking Champaign city officials to practice what she calls "a higher level of ethics" and let the Safe Haven community keep camping on the grounds of St. Mary's Church, at least until winter sets in. Harmon says city regulations forbidding camping ought to be revisited in tough economic times.
"The city has a housing crisis on its hands that it needs to recognize," Harmon said. "Given the housing crisis, there are times when the pre-existing city ordinance is not working for the people. When the law no longer works for the people, the law needs to be modified."
Harmon says in the long term, the Safe Haven group would like to purchase "micro-houses" to replace tents for homeless residents. She describes them as 8x10-foot pre-fab rooms with solid walls that can accommodate heaters. They'd be served by a common kitchen-and-bath facility. Some Champaign council members have criticized the tent community, which was forced to leave its first home at Champaign's St. Jude Catholic Worker House because it violates city codes.
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